Credit: Joe Gratz/Flickr.com

The largest corporate landlord in the United States was hit with a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that alleges a blanket refusal to rent to tenants with a criminal record.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Tuesday, the nonprofit Equal Rights Center argues that Memphis, Tennessee-based Mid-America Apartments’ policy of categorically forbidding anyone from renting an apartment who has a “felony conviction or pending felony charge as well as certain misdemeanors or pending misdemeanor charges” violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968 because it has a “disproportionate adverse impact on African Americans and Latinos.”

Company officials did not return two emails and three phone calls seeking comment, and have not yet filed a response to the suit in court.

Mid-America Apartments has doubled its holdings since 2013 and is now the largest private landlord in the country, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, with more than 100,000 apartments across the Southwest and Southeast.

The complaint alleges Mid-America Apartments enforced the policy in at least 55 housing complexes containing over 20,000 units. The apartments were formerly owned by Post Properties, an Atlanta-based megalandlord that Mid-America acquired last year for $3.9 billion.

In its complaint the Equal Rights Center asks the court to stop the company from enforcing the policy and demands damages “that would punish Defendants for the willful, malicious, and reckless conduct alleged herein and that would effectively deter similar conduct in the future.” The Equal Rights Center, a Washington, D.C. civil rights group, brought the case with the nonprofit Washington Lawyers Committee and Relman, Dane & Colfax, one of the largest plaintiff-side fair housing law firms in the country.

They argue that the company’s policy flew in the face of instructions issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which require that any restrictions placed on tenants based on criminal history “must be tailored to serve the housing provider’s substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest and take into consideration such factors as the type of the crime and the length of the time since conviction.”

“The ability of people who come out of prison and jail to maintain stable housing has a huge impact on recidivism rates,” said Kate Scott, deputy director of the Equal Rights Center. “To say that a person with a criminal record can’t have housing is going to lead to a lot of other social problems.”

The case represents the second federal suit to move forward against a major corporate landlord this month. On Dec. 4, notices went out to current and former tenants of Equity Residential after U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White allowed a class-action lawsuit alleging unlawful and excessive fees to move forward.

That company, headed by billionaire Sam Zell, is the third largest private owner of apartments in the United States, with 78,000 units across six states.

Aaron Glantz can be reached at aglantz@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Glantz.

Aaron Glantz was a senior reporter at Reveal. He is the author of "Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream." Glantz produces journalism with impact. His work has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, numerous laws and criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Pentagon and Federal Trade Commission. A two-time Peabody Award winner, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, multiple Emmy Award nominee and former John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Glantz has had his work has appear in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour. His previous books include "The War Comes Home" and "How America Lost Iraq."